A Light in the Night
It was our last day on the river and we were the last canoe. The Allagash was low, the temperature uncommonly high for Northern Maine—90 plus. My bow paddler was distressingly slow. I’d yell hard right and we’d be on the rock before he decided which side was right. None of the campers wanted to paddle with Willie.
We’d been drifting, swimming, and goofing off for five days; a dozen boys and two men. I chose Willie for my partner out of compassion. I generally bring up the rear on the trail or water to make sure no one gets left behind, and Willie assured me that position.
He was 12, maybe 13, from a foster home. Short sandy hair, brown eyes, scrawny; he read poorly but could he talk! He chattered away, seamlessly moving from one topic to another, delighted to have a listener. “See that duck?” he said, pointing to the sky. “No, in the clouds.” I saw no duck, but I noted the clouds were thickening.
“Wish I had my camera,” said Willie. “Why?” I asked, looking skyward. “No, down the river.” In the shallows stood a buck with a huge rack in velvet. He watched us approach then ambled into the woods. Willie paddled quietly a while.
“Cap, were you ever scared?” “Sure. Lots of times.” “I mean really, really scared.” “I guess so,” I replied, wondering where this was going. “I was really scared today,” said Willie. I had paddled with him since morning and nothing I considered scary had happened. “Tell me about it.” “Remember when we stopped to eat and you asked us to tell about Jesus?”
We had rendezvoused on a sandbar for lunch and devotions. I asked the kids to tell what they had learned on the trip; then tell and how they met the Lord. Last-day excitement ran high; responses were meager. We loaded the canoes and pushed off for our last stretch of river with some distance to go. Nothing scary happened on the sandbar.
“I wanted to tell how I met Jesus,” said Willie. “I have a Bible but I don’t read good. I wanted to say something, but the kids always laugh at me. I got really, really scared.” That tore at my soul; a boy pouring his heart out to a friend. Guilt for my impatience swept over me. I wanted to hug Willie and tell him I cared. We paddled silently a long time.
The Allagash runs north toward Canada. We’d enjoyed a following breeze throughout the trip. Now at late afternoon the sky darkened and a brisk north wind hit us in the face. Rain was certain. Willie wore cutoffs and a T; I wore jeans, a T, and a baseball cap. Our sweatshirts and rain gear were in a canoe far ahead. Thunder rumbled.
The front swept in, dropping the temperature 40 degrees in minutes. I dug with my paddle, fighting the headwind. Rain splotches turned into a downpour. Lightning cracked. Willie put down his paddle to hug himself for warmth, and I was as cold as I care to be. At one point we paused to dump water from our canoe. Willie shivered violently but there was nothing I could do for him. The river ran through deep woods in the gathering dark.
Then the front passed; the wind calmed and the rain stopped, but it was getting colder. Willie sat mute. Heavy overcast hastened night darkness, making it increasing difficulty to pick a course. I couldn’t risk a dump-over in the dark, and I had no idea how far we had to go. I called to Willie. “If we don’t reach the guys soon, we’ll have to pull out until daylight. It’s OK. I’ll keep you warm.” How I did not know.
We were both silent. I strained to see. Boulder-strewn water wound through the forest, carrying me toward the hard decision. One more bend and we would have to pull out. The bend came and beyond it a straight stretch. I thought I saw a glimmer. I paddled with renewed energy.
The glimmer became a Coleman lantern hung on a branch over the river and up the steep bank a campfire reflected off the firs. Hello camp! I called. Eager hands caught our canoe and helped us up the bank to hot chocolate and warm sleeping bags. I prayed with a great fervor that night.
I never saw Willie again. I’d like to find him and thank him for what he taught me that night on the Allagash.